Coping with traumatic events

Traumatic events can take many forms, including but not limited to accidents, sudden deaths, workplace incidents, violence, or acts of terrorism. Whatever the nature of a traumatic event, your experiences and reactions will be very personal to you.

The following pages offer guidance and support to both employees and employers on how to cope with these events and where to access further help and advice

EMPLOYEE’S GUIDE TO COPING WITH A TRAUMATIC INCIDENT

Reactions to trauma

There are many different responses to a traumatic event. It is not unusual to feel unsettled in the first few days following such an incident.

Listed below are some of the responses you may experience all of which are normal reactions to trauma:

Emotional

  • inability to concentrate, or make simple decisions
  • impulsive actions, or searching for quick fixes
  • irritability, anger, or violence
  • disturbed sleep, or upsetting thoughts, dreams and nightmares
  • loss of interest in your family, friends and daily routine
  • changes in sexual interest
  • loss of confidence

Physical

  • headaches, nausea, stomach pains, chest tightness, muscle pain, feeling unwell
  • listlessness and feeling tired
  • increased sensitivity
  • pounding heart, rapid breathing
  • changes in appetite
  • increased use of tobacco, alcohol, recreational drugs, etc.

How to manage your response to trauma

Understand that everyone reacts differently to trauma.

Maintain your work routine as much as possible but understand that you may not perform at your best during this time. Discuss any issues or concerns with your manager.

Allow yourself to feel sad about what happened.

Take time out to rest, sleep, think and care for yourself.

Eat healthy meals. Be careful not to skip meals or to overeat.

Be mindful of your concentration levels. Research has shown that concentration can be diminished following traumatic events. Take extra care whilst driving or operating machinery.

Maintain your social network with friends and family.

Seek advice and support if you increase your use of tobacco, alcohol, recreational drugs from your GP

Acknowledge your feelings and discuss these with a friend, family member or your GP.

Sources of support available to you

If you experience any prolonged response to the traumatic incident impacting on your health, you should seek advice and support.

Where to go for support:

  • your GP
  • the NHS has a specific web page for Trauma and PTSD
  • your Department or Division may have access to Employee Assistance Programme (EAP)
  • Talking Space offers a range of free therapies that have been approved by the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE)
  • Mind offers advice and more links to support networks
  • Samaritans offers an immediate one to one discussion at times of distress (call for free on 116 123)
  • Victim Support offers support and advice for victims of any crime
MANAGER’S GUIDE TO SUPPORTING TEAMS AFTER A TRAUMATIC INCIDENT

This guidance provides an outline of current best practice when supporting employees after a traumatic event in the workplace. If a staff member witnesses an event such as a sudden death or an accident in a department it can affect them deeply. Staff affected may look to their manager or their organisation for support. This document outlines how best to support the psychological needs of any individual or team.

The effect of a traumatic event

Initial reactions to a traumatic event vary depending upon the individuals involved and the circumstances of the event. It is likely that any immediate response might include a sense of shock and disbelief, which gradually subsides over the following hours and days. This sense of shock may be replaced by a range of feelings and reactions in the subsequent days. 

Emotional responses may include:

  • fear
  • helplessness
  • anger
  • guilt
  • sadness
  • relief
  • shame and embarrassment

Other reactions might include:

  • poor sleep and tiredness
  • nightmares
  • poor concentration
  • poorer memory and difficulty thinking clearly
  • lethargy and loss of motivation
  • lack of interest in normal activities
  • apparent indifference to other people
  • heightened irritability
  • aches and pains
  • headaches
  • physical symptoms of anxiety
  • restlessness
  • taking time off work
  • increased drug or alcohol use

Over the next two to three weeks people begin to make sense of what has occurred by reappraising events and often recounting them. Managers may need to make allowances for how this may affect an employee’s concentration and output at work. These are the usual reactions of individuals adjusting and adapting to an abnormal event.

For most employees the symptoms of distress have settled after a month. However for some, symptoms can persist.

The manager’s role after a traumatic event

  • communication is important. As soon as possible after the event a manager may wish to convene an informal meeting to acknowledge what has happened, to consider what may happen over the next few weeks, and offer information about available support
  • managers should encourage the prompt re-establishment of the normal working routine whilst considering short-term flexibility around time worked and workload for individuals to support each other
  • providing flexibility around time worked and workload improves the long term outcome compared with those who are absent from work. If an employee is unable to work in the area where the incident occurred, temporary arrangements for redeployment to an alternative site may be preferable to sickness absence.
  • if an employee’s long term performance or health is affected by the event, managers should encourage them to seek specialist advice and support from their GP
  • if an employee is absent from work managers should maintain contact with them to support and encourage their return to work. Short term flexible arrangements can be considered and a referral to Occupational Health should be made for further advice. Please visit our website (www.admin.ox.ac.uk/uohs) for details on how to refer to Occupational Health and the services we provide
  • managers may need to expect that individuals’ responses can vary and encourage respect for this

Useful resources

Ongoing symptoms of anxiety, abnormal levels of distress or sickness absence, indicate that further support is necessary.

Encourage your employee to visit their GP and or go to the employee advice section. If your Department or Division has an EAP program, encourage your employee to contact them for further support and guidance.

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